What It Takes To Be A Good Horse Person

“Amos, what d’ya reckon is the most important part of learning to get along with a horse?” I asked.


Amos and his twin brother, Walt had become my defacto mentors by default. They were old men when I met them, but they were sharp and wise when it came to horses.


I had been working at the riding school for a few years now and at the ripe old age of 16 I figured I knew a few things about being a good horseman. I knew there was more to learn, but my grasp of more than the basics was obvious. Afterall, people asked me to ride and compete with their horses. I had started several horses under saddle and been praised for the job I had done. I was teaching other people to ride. No doubt about it, I was on my way to being as good a horseman as the old brothers – maybe better one day.


“Mmm matey. I don’t reckon there is just one thing,” Amos replied as he continued mixing the evening feed for his horse.


“C’mon there must be something that stands above the rest when I ask that question. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”


“Well, matey I guess it’s probably different for different people, so I can’t give ya an answer that would work for everybody,” he said.


“But I reckon that ya can’t be a good horseman until ya really appreciate that there ain’t no bigger responsibility than takin care of ya horse’s emotions. Nothin is more important if ya goin to get along with a horse. It don’t matter if ya win blue ribbons or get paid a lot of money to train horses or ya write famous books about horsemanship. Bein famous and bein popular with the crowds don’t make a person a good horse person. Bein good with horses comes from inside a person to care about how their horse feels all the time.


I could have almost predicted Amos’ answer because caring about horses feelings has been the mantra they have driven home to me every since I met them. To Walt and Amos there is no higher priority than helping a horse to feel okay in everything we do with them. So this revelation was no news flash for me. But what he said next did surprise.


“I already know that, Amos. Isn’t there something more?”


“Matey, ya may think ya know it, but ya don’t – not yet,” he said.


“What d’ya mean, Amos?”


“What ya don’t know yet is how hard it is to dig inside a horse where the emotions sit. And the reason it’s so hard is because life is a competition.”


Life is a competition! What the hell did that mean? So I asked.


“Did ya know that Walt is 17 minutes older than me, matey?” Amos asked.


“Yeah,” I replied.


“D’ya know why he is 17 minutes older? Of course ya don’t,” he asked and answered.


“It’s because Walt pushed, scratched, crawled and elbowed past me to get out of our mum ahead of me. We competed inside the womb and we are still competin and bickerin nearly 77 years later. I lived with that man almost my whole life and there ain’t nobody I love more and am closer to than me brother. But we are in constant competition. Still when he is feelin bad or he needs somethin all I care about is tryin to fix it for him. I take no pleasure that it’s his pain and not mine. But when it’s done, we are still arguin, bickerin and tryin to out do each other.


“It’s like that with horses too. We are always competin against our horses. Their need to feel safe competes with our need for them to load into a horse float. Their need to rest a sore back competes with our need to put a saddle on ‘em. Their need to see what moved in the next paddock competes with our need to have their attention. A horse’s needs and our needs are always in competition and it causes conflict.


“If ya gonna give priority to a horse’s emotions when workin with them, then ya have to care a lot about their needs – even when they clash with your needs. This is when ya discover that talking about caring about the emotions of horses is much not the same as really doin it. People are always talking about it, but Walt maybe the only one I know who does it.


“So when you tell me ya understand the importance of lookin after a horse’s emotional welfare, give it a few more years and tell me again.”


I walked away from Amos feeling despondent, which I know was not Amos’ intention. He and Walt are long gone and there is nobody to confess to that I am still not sure I get it.

You can read more stories from Amos and Walt in my books "Old Men and Horses" and "Changing The Tide" available through the Books page on this web site.

Hindquarter Disengagement Is Not About The Hindquarters!

One of the most common exercises that are taught by teachers of horsemanship (from whatever ilk they come) is the hindquarter disengagement (although I prefer to call it a hindquarter yield). Most people practice it as either an important component of a one rein stop or as a means in itself to connect the inside rein to the hindquarters of a horse.


Hindquarter yields are a very powerful tool for both influencing the mind of a horse and directing the hindquarters. I feel much safer about getting on a horse where the hindquarter yields are well established, than getting on one that hasn’t got a clue. It can help calm a worried mind, build softness to the reins, improve straightness, teach engagement of the hindquarters (I know this sounds like the opposite of a disengagement, but trust me they are strongly related), influence focus and give to clarity to the function of the reins. Life is just a whole lot easier for my horse and me when the hindquarters yields are in good shape.


Like all things when working with a horse, the value of a hindquarter yield is directly proportional to the quality with which it is performed. Poor quality gives poor value and good quality gives excellent value. So it is important to know what a good quality hindquarter yield looks and feels like before embarking on the exercise.


My take on a good hindquarter yield starts with asking for a horse to follow the inside rein with its thought. This sets up the horse to softly flex its neck to the inside in direct response to the feel of the inside rein – no more and no less than the feel of the rein asks. When the horse thinks to the inside there should be no resistance or tension and the head should remain perpendicular to the ground. When this happens, the horse shifts more weight to the outside shoulder as it lifts the inside hind leg to step forward and cross in front of the outside hind leg.  The front legs remain relatively still as the hind end steps around. The movement should be smooth and fluid, with no rush and no drag of the feet. As the inside hind lands on the ground in front of the outside hind leg, the horse shifts more weight to the hindquarters and lightens the front end. This readies the horse for the next thing a rider might ask.


In short, a hindquarter yield is nothing more than a very tight turn.


Now that I have described the why and mechanics of what happens on the outside of the horse when asked to perform a hindquarter yield, I want to briefly talk about why I decided to write this article.


In my opinion, the single biggest mistake people make when teaching a horse to perform a hindquarter yield is to concern themselves with what the back end of a horse is doing.


When they think of a hindquarter yield they immediately focus on the inside hind leg crossing over the outside hind leg. In most peoples mind that is the uppermost important aspect of doing a hindquarter yield correctly. But it is just not true and it leads to big problems.


Stepping of a horse’s inside hind leg across the outside hind leg is the second last thing that happens before completing a hindquarter yield (the last thing being the shift of weight to the hind end). There is a cascade of steps that have to happen before that, in order for the hindquarter yield to be correct. If those steps do not fall into place correctly, anything that the hindquarters do will be inconsequential and irrelevant. But if all the events that come before the feet move line up perfectly, the hindquarters will be taken care of without the need for the rider to hand-hold the horse through the steps. In other words, what happens in the front end is more important than what happens at the hind end.


Why do I say that?


It’s because like everything we do in life, the success or otherwise depends on the preparation.


When the inside rein inspires a horse to have a strong thought to the inside, the hindquarters are automatically taken care of. A horse will move its feet to align its body in the direction of its strongest thought. So when a horse yields its thought to the feel of the inside rein, a rider should get out of the way and let the horse take care of the hindquarters. It will be the softest, prettiest hindquarter yield you ever saw. That’s why I prefer to call them hindquarter yields rather than hindquarter disengagements. I want people to focus on the horse yielding its thought instead of disengaging its feet.


Once a horse has yielded its thought, I am almost unconcerned if it disengages its hindquarters or not because I now have a horse with a mind that is engaged. Asking a horse to disengage its hindquarters is really asking it to engage its mind. This is the real power and magic behind hindquarter yields.


People who are pre-occupied with the hindquarters stepping sideways as the important component of a hindquarter disengagement are actually missing the point of the exercise. All the important stuff happens at the front end before the feet even move.


I believe if you give this idea a little time to soak in, you’ll start to realize how much it relates to so many other aspects of training and building a connection with a horse. In fact, it’s hard to think of too many situations where it is not relevant.


In the photo the riders are clearly focused and pre-occupied on making sure their horses disengage their hindquarters and almost seem oblivious to the brace and trouble displayed in the front end of their horses.




Is It A Physical Or Learning Exercise?

A little while ago Jenny brought her nice gelding Cal along to a clinic. Jenny told me that she found Cal to be unpredictable. Some days he was great and other days he was a firecracker to work with. Jenny couldn’t predict from day to day what side of the bed Cal got out of in the mornings. Cal is 14 years old and Jenny had owned him since he was a 4 year old (I think). They had a long history together and Jenny had made a lot of progress with the gelding, but she was stuck at the moment with making further headway.


We started the session by Jenny showing me the groundwork she normally did at home with Cal. She began by putting Cal on a circle at a walk, and then a trot followed by a change of direction and repeating the walk and trot in the other direction.


Cal put on his best cranky face, tossed his head, swished his tail and generally showed his displeasure at being dragged to a Ross Jacobs clinic. While Cal was unhappy, Jenny was quite happy because she was relieved that Cal was having one of his bad days. She feared it was going to be a good Cal day and make me think Jenny was telling fibs.


After a short time of watching I asked Jenny is she would stop working Cal and we could talk.


“I have a question,” I said.


“You asked Cal to walk on a circle, then asked him to trot, followed by a change of direction and another walk and trot. What was it that you saw about Cal that told you it was time to stop walking and begin trotting. What did you notice that made you think Cal should now stop trotting to the left and change direction to the right?  What then made you decide to ask him for another walk instead of a trot or a canter? How did you know it was time to ask Cal for any change?


Jenny had to give it some thought.


She said, “I didn’t want to do anything for too long.”


“So you asked for Cal to do something different when you felt he had done it long enough and didn’t want him to get bored. Your decision to ask for something new was based on time?” I asked.


“Yes,” she answered.


I want to state at the outset that Jenny has some real talent with horses and it was a pleasure to work with somebody with the awareness, level of feel and timing that she has. But there was something missing that created the Jekyll and Hyde relationship she had with her gelding.


When we ask a horse to do something (anything), the benefit in doing that is only realized if there is a change for the better. It doesn’t matter if it is asking a horse to pick up its feet, change canter leads or run barrels. The benefit only comes from ensuring there is a positive change in a horse’s focus, clarity and softness. Without that occurring there is no learning for a horse. The exercises become just that – exercise. Nothing is gained except fitness.


I believe this is a really important message, so I won’t to be absolutely clear about it. A horse will only do something better if it perceives there is a benefit to it. The perception of benefit comes from how the horse’s mind perceives it. It does not come from a benefit that the body gets like becoming fitter, stronger or better balanced. Those things are what humans might perceive. But from a horse’s stand point there is no understanding of the concepts of becoming fitter, stronger and more balanced. The only profit a horse can conceive of by doing something better is an emotional profit. It must feel better to a horse if they are going to learn something positive from a training experience.


I have previously discussed in other posts that softness is an emotional response to pressure and that softness is the love child of focus and clarity. Therefore, if a horse is to see a benefit from an exercise they must feel better at the end than they did at the beginning. This means that there must be some improvement in focus, clarity and softness for a horse to gain that benefit.  Without it, a horse does not see an advantage of doing something better and both progress and our relationship will be damaged or at the very least in the doldrums.


This is the situation that Jenny found herself in with Cal. Their relationship was stagnant and Cal was not able to feel okay enough with the work to become a steady and reliable gelding – all because Jenny was missing the piece about making sure everything finished with Cal feeling a little better than when it started. The exercises just became exercises for her and Cal. Somebody had taught Jenny the mechanics of circling, hindquarters disengagements, trotting etc. And Jenny did the mechanics very well. But nobody had explained to Jenny the relationship of the exercises to the emotions of a horse. She had presumed that just by moving the horse around there was benefit that led to a better relationship and better performance – a concept that is incorrect and rife in the horsemanship world.


It will be no surprise to anyone that the problem Jenny and Cal found themselves in is an epidemic. I see the same situation more often than not at clinics.


So next time you ask your horse to do something and before asking for the next thing, consider asking yourself whether or not your horse feels better and was there a change in the level of focus, clarity and softness? Without a change for the better your horse has not learned anything good that will progress its education. There is no learning for a horse without a change in focus, clarity and softness.


I don’t have a photo of Jenny and Cal, but here is a photo from my recent visit to River Valley, NZ. You may be fooled into think the chess board is very large, but the truth is that New Zealanders are very tiny and you have to be careful not to step on them.

Vinnie - The Fitness Fanatic Horse


Blocking An Idea vs Making An Idea - Using The Reins

This article is a new take on an old theme that has been discussed on this page a few times. But I still notice that there is a common misconception about the role of the reins in horse riding. So I’m going to bring it up again.


The reins have 2 functions. The first is to direct movement of a horse. The second is to influence the shape of a horse. Today I want to talk about the first function.


Almost everywhere I go, people have been living with the idea that the reins are intended to tell a horse where to go. This is pretty understandable. From the day a person experiences their first ride on a horse they learn that if they pull the right rein the horse turns right, pulling the left rein turns the horse to the left and pulling on both reins applies the brakes. It would seem an obvious conclusion that the reins therefore tell a horse what to do with its movement. But in reality, it is not so simple.


How many times have I been telling you that everything we do in good horsemanship is about changing a horse’s thoughts? The only change worth having is a change of thought, not a change in the feet. If you don’t get a change in a horse’s idea then all you are doing is wallpapering over the cracks, irrespective of whether the feet are obedient or not. You may get the feet to go one way, but if the horse is thinking of going in a different direction, then you have an unhappy horse, a resistant horse and a breakdown in your connection.


With that in mind, the first function of the reins is to influence a horse’s thought in order to direct the feet. Simple, isn’t it? Well simple to say, but harder to do.


This is where people seem to get confused.


In order to change a thought for a horse, it means we have to try to get it to come up with a new thought. A horse holds onto the idea it has because in its mind it is the best idea that occurs to it at the time. Somehow we have to inspire a horse to come up with a different idea. If it already believes our idea was a better idea, it would change it without us having to ask. Yet this rarely happens so it’s our job to present a horse with a new thought and entice it to give it a try.


This is where the role of the reins can make or break our relationship with a horse. In the situation that I see in most people’s training, the reins are used to impose an idea to move a horse in whatever direction we want. This means our reins impose an idea by overlying on top of the idea a horse already has. Instead of erasing the old idea lingering in a horse’s mind, we just put our idea on top of the horse’s idea. The old thought is still on the horse’s mind, but we prevent the horse from acting on the old idea.


An example that easily comes to mind is when we hold the reins tight during mounting to prevent a horse from walking off. Despite the horse doing what we want, the old thought of moving forward still lingers in the mind of the horse. In fact, it may even be the dominant thought, but the power of the reins impose a stillness in the feet.


Furthermore, consider a horse that wants to race home on the trail, but the rider holds the reins tight enough to keep the feet at a walk or jog. If the reins were relaxed, the horse’s thought to get home as fast as possible would take over.


These are examples where there is a failure of the reins achieve their primary function of changing a horse’s thinking.


So what needs to change in order to change a horse’s mind? In order to do this we need to use them in a way that dissolves the idea that already occupies a horse’s thoughts. If a horse drops an idea like a hot potato, it needs a new idea to occupy that space in its thoughts. That’s the opportunity for us to implant our idea. This means that we do not apply the reins to make an idea happen, but instead to block an idea that already exists. This concept seems to be a hard one for some people to grasp.


Let me give an example. When I apply pressure to both reins and ask my horse to halt I expect the feet to stop. But when I release the reins and my horse moves again without being asked, I know I never got a change of thought. My reins imposed an idea to still the feet over the top of the horse’s idea to go forward, but they did not erase the idea to go forward. However, if I apply the reins and wait for the horse to think about not moving, the old thought has been removed and replaced with a new idea of standing still. The horse is now thinking that standing quietly is the better idea. The role of the reins was not to make the horse stop (because I could already do that with the first effort), but their role was to block the thought that moving was a good idea. Once a horse decided that moving was not a good idea, standing still became a great idea.


Grasping the concept of the reins being used to block and idea rather than create an idea seems elusive for some people. And I agree it can be a tough thing to get a head around when blocking something and making something can appear virtually the same thing on the surface. It took a lot of thinking and experimenting to cement the idea in my head. But now it is almost part of my DNA.


As somebody who does not like gardening I am in both dismay and awe that somebody could create something so amazing from simple hedges.